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Lollapalooza cutting edge has dulled

When Lollapalooza started five years ago, it was about as alternative as any big touring rock show could get.

Inaugurated in 1991, it served as a mass celebration of the emerging modern rock subculture, championed by cutting edge groups like Pearl Jam, along with oddities like the modern-day circus freaks, the Jim Rose Sideshow _ adept at eating light bulbs and lying on broken glass.

Lollapalooza is still the biggest tour of modern rockers on the planet _ featuring 20 bands ranging from up-and-coming modern rockers like Sponge and Psychotica to million-selling stars like Metallica and Soundgarden _ drawing up to 30,000 faithful at each of its 27 tour stops this year, including Thursday's 10-hour show in West Palm.

But the vibe feels different at Lollapalooza '96.

After a few minutes perusing the sprawling site at the South Florida Fairgrounds, it seemed obvious. Just as so-called "alternative" rock has crowded into the Top 40 and the trappings of Generation X culture have become a marketing concept, so too has Lollapalooza become just another big rock show with lots of lights and concession booths.

It is, in fact, what many of those artists at the first Lollapalooza feared would follow the platinum record sales and heavy MTV

rotation: the mainstreaming of cutting edge culture.

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There was, perhaps, no better symbol of this at Thursday's show than the Shields family.

Lee Shields looked every bit the thirtysomething, off-duty lawyer he is, his clean-cut demeanor contrasting markedly with the sea of tattoos, body piercings and dyed hair surrounding him.

And that's just describing the rest of his family.

Shields' wife, Terree, sported an amazing array of dragon tattoos across her back and legs, a perfect complement to the four earrings dangling from her right ear and the judiciously placed silver nose ring.

Behind her, the couple's 8-year-old son, Alex, struck up a conversation with two black lipstick-wearing alterna-teens, impressing them with his newly dyed bright green hair.

"He was worried how they'd react in school to his hair," says Terree. "I told him they'd love it. He looks just like the guys in ('90s punk band) Green Day."

Fans of punk since the '70s, Lee and Terree brought their son to his first Lollapalooza after seeing two on their own. Besides marveling at how many of today's young kids are enjoying the music of their disaffected youth, the elder Shields admit a little disappointment in seeing the battle cry of their generation become the marketing concept of another.

"It was a little more fun when this was left-of-center," Terree says. "Coming to a Ramones show and paying $3 for diet soda . . . that's something that's getting me down."

Aren't they worried about exposing their young son to this sea of alternative culture _ rife with four-letter words and folks with body piercings in every conceivable cavity?

"No," Terree says, laughing, "he probably sees worse stuff on TV."

With today's "extreme" culture marketed to sell everything from video games to tennis shoes _ remember the Nike ad featuring a young woman in silver body paint and nose ring? _ it was tough to argue her point.

Conceived as a traveling tribute to modern rock culture, Lollapalooza started with the best of intentions: uniting emerging modern rock artists in a touring festival of alternative spirit.

Boasting former Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell as spokesman and creative guiding light, the tour became a symbol of an emerging rock scene _ featuring now-legendary artists Pearl Jam, Living Colour and Ice-T.

But every year pundits have accused festival organizers of losing a bit more of the tour's original ethic. Looking around Lollapalooza's midway _ an area filled with vendors and the two smaller stages _ it wasn't hard to find the evidence.

In past tours, booths for activists like the AIDS awareness group Lifebeat and the Surfrider ecological foundation were sprinkled among the merchants hawking hemp bracelets and custom body piercings _ forcing fans to at least consider a worthy cause before heading to the Italian sausage booth.

For 1996, they're sequestered in the Mind Trough _ a single tent at the far end of the concert site where they're sure not to bother anyone who doesn't want a pamphlet.

Also in years past, artists such as rappers Arrested Development and techno dance king Moby cruised the grounds, checking out performances by other bands and talking to fans. The closest thing in '96 was two autograph sessions featuring Psychotica at various merchandise booths.

And despite a lot of colorful signs and displays referring to the festival's current carnival theme, the one midway attraction sure to bring a unique flavor to the show _ a set of amusement park rides _ never made it past the first few shows.

"A lot of the more alternative vendors were not into this year's setup," says Tony Morris, a veteran of all six Lollapaloozas who sells sunglasses from an expansive booth. "It seems a lot more commercialized than it has been."

Indeed, while the crowd at this Lollapalooza brought an unending stream of black lipstick, shaved heads, pierced lips, navel and noses, Doc Marten work boots and teen passion to the concert, there's little sense of the communal vibe Farrell hoped to foster in the first tour.

Of course, with other distractions gone, Lollapalooza organizers have assembled an amazing concert _ featuring a lineup that shone from the smallest unknown band on the indie stage to Metallica's bone crunching main stage finale.

"Sure, it's a little less unique this year, but you could spend $200 to see this many bands on your own," says Brian Randolph, a veteran Lollapalooza fan who drove four hours from home in Largo for the show. "For this kind of music, no matter what, Lollapalooza is still the tour to see."

But airbrush artist Marix might have a different perspective.

Based in Tampa, Marix paints realistic portraits of serial killers while decked out in Alice Cooper-influenced makeup. Sometimes he hides packets of simulated blood in the canvas where the subject's neck will be painted.

When the image is finished, Marix slashes a knife across the packs, and watches the painting "bleed" _ a big hit with passing crowds that watch his performances in the window of the Empire nightclub in Ybor City.

At past Lollapaloozas, always a delicate balance between creative freedom and commerce, oddball artists like Marix have been welcomed with open arms.

Sure enough, the organizers of this year's show asked him to open their smallest stage with his flamboyant, heavy metal-inspired performance art style. He eagerly signed on to most of the 27-date tour with visions of bringing his work to hundreds of thousands of fans.

But the promised performance spot never materialized. Instead, Marix has been bumped to the festival's concession area, displaying his paintings in a makeshift booth while begging tour organizers for a 20-minute spot on one of the show's three stages.

"There's a lot of politics between all the bands, and getting on a stage is tough," says the artist, looking comfortable in his stage makeup, despite temperatures above 90 degrees. "They keep telling me maybe it'll happen at the next stop, and then we get there, and it's a different story.

"I've never been to Lollapalooza before, but this isn't going the way you'd think," adds Marix, before trotting off to bug the tour manager again for a spot onstage. "The way it's organized really . . ."